With just one loss in three rounds of playoff hockey, the Spruce Grove Saints were pretty much in cruise control heading into Game 1 of the Doyle Cup regional series Friday night at Wesbild Centre.
The Vernon Vipers put to rest any notion that the Saints would have an easy march to the RBC national Junior A championships, April 30-May 8 in Camrose.
Rookie forward Darren Nowick fired the winner late in the second period as the BCHL champion Vipers brushed back the AJHL champion Saints 3-1 before 2,100 fans to open the best-of-seven series.
“We felt comfortable. It’s pretty easy to get up for the No. 1 team in the nation so everyone just chipped in and played a great game,” said the speedy Nowick, a native of Long Beach, Calif.
“We took advantage of our chances and pretty much outworked them down low. It’s usually pretty hard to stop all our lines if they’re going.”
Game 2 went Saturday night at Wesbild. A Vernon win would send the series to Alberta for the remaining games. If the teams split the first two games, Game 3 would go tonight at Wesbild.
The Vipers outshot the Saints 18-5 in the opening period (37-26 overall), but some sound goaltending by Vincenzo Marozzi kept it scoreless heading into the first intermission.
Marozzi, Spruce Grove’s best player on the night, came up with the game’s first big save, dragging his right pad just enough to deny Mike Zalewski from the slot at the three-minute mark.
The Saints were unable to generate many quality scoring chances, and their defence appeared to have trouble containing Vernon’s speedy forward corps. Spruce Grove captain Bryce Van Brabant sent Sammy Spurrell in alone on a breakaway in the final minute of the first period, but Vernon d-man Malcolm Lyles pulled a diving poke check to break up the play before Spurrell could shoot.
Spruce Grove head coach Jason Mckee said his team simply didn’t execute the fundamentals of hockey in the series opener.
“Too many passengers tonight. We didn’t have enough guys prepared to lay it on the line. It’s tough to beat a team as good as Vernon when you don’t have 20 guys going,” said Mckee, who played NCAA Division 1 with the Michigan Tech Huskies.
Nowick (first star) set up Vernon’s opening goal as he drove up the right side, blowing by Saints’ defenceman Jesse Slobodian, who stumbled at the blueline. Marozzi got a piece of Nowick’s wrister, but Marcus Basara was on his doorstep to pick up the loose change.
For Vernon’s second goal, Zalewski faked a shot to freeze Marozzi before threading a cross-ice pass that Nowick redirected at the side of the net at 17:10. He then crashed heavily into the end boards.
Dylan Walchuk, on a diving effort in the slot, chipped a puck past Marozzi (34 saves) to make it 3-0 on a Vernon powerplay at 6:31 of the third period.
Vipers’ assistant coach Jason Williamson was happy to see his players drive to the net.
“If you get a chance to get the puck to the net with guys going there, good things are going to happen. That was indicative of at least two of our goals tonight,” he said.
“It makes us a hard team to play against. We had a good start and we were able to build off it.”
It didn’t take long for the two teams to renew the rivalrly from last year’s Doyle Cup series. The game featured plenty of physical play, and talking between the whistles. Fans were furious with referees Brett Iverson and Jeff Ingram over a non-call on Saints’ forward David Glen after he delivered an elbow to Lyles’ head as he carried the puck through the slot in the second period.
Williamson suspected Vernon didn’t see the Saints at their best Friday night, and said they would have to be ready for a much better performance in Game 2.
“They don’t want to fall down 2-0, so we know they’ll have a good effort,” he said.
“They’re as advertised – a big, strong team that’s well coached with good defensive structure.”
Dustin Fostvelt answered a minute later for Spruce Grove, burying a shot past a sprawled Kirby Halcrow (25 saves) after some steady pressure in Vernon’s zone.
The Saints pulled Marozzi in the final minute, but couldn’t establish a forecheck in Vernon’s zone.
Despite their earlier post-season success, Fostvelt, one of eight Edmonton products in the Spruce Grove lineup, felt nerves were a factor in Game 1.
“You could tell there were some guys gripping their sticks a little bit tight. Once we got that first period out of the way, even though our second period wasn’t our best effort, I think that in Game 2 our first period will be a lot stronger now that we know what’s coming,” said the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder.
“Tonight we just didn’t get a complete effort from every guy.”